Vanessa Guillen’s family seeks $35 million in the Army specialist’s 2020 wrongful death at Fort Hood

Vanessa Guillen's sisters Lupe Guillen, left, and Mayra Guillen speak at a press conference regarding legislation that would designate Sept. 30, Guillens Birthday, as Vanessa Guillen Day on April 20, 2021. (Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune, Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune)

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The family of Vanessa Guillén, the 20-year-old Army specialist bludgeoned to death by a fellow soldier at Fort Hood has filed a $35 million wrongful death claim against the Army.

The claim made under the Federal Tort Claims Act, was filed on Friday, one day after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco ruled that a former Army colonel’s sexual assault case against a retired Air Force general could proceed.

Previously, the military was protected from damage claims relating to sexual abuse because it was thought to be included in a military doctrine that says soldiers cannot sue over training or combat casualties.

In the Guillén family’s case, their attorney Natalie Khawam has notified the Army that Guillén was subjected to sexual harassment and sexual assault during her service and that her April 2020 murder inside the Killeen Army base’s armory, was the result.

“Why would anyone think, ‘Let me go sign up and serve our country, fight for our country, take bullets, be maimed, die for our country,’ yet when it comes to something as a horrible as sexual assault or something, they don’t have any recourse?” said Khawam.

If the Army denies the claim, Khawam said she plans to file a federal lawsuit in California because Guillén told her mother she was sexually harassed in 2019 at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin where she was undertaking field training exercises in San Bernardino County. An Army investigation confirmed those details.

Guillén joined the Army shortly after her 18th birthday in 2018 and was thrilled, according to her family in Houston, that she would be stationed at Fort Hood, just a three-hour drive away.

Both the Army’s report and an affidavit from Guillén’s sister, Mayra Guillén, detailed how Vanessa’s personality changed dramatically by the fall of 2019 when she disclosed to her family that she had been sexual harassed by her fellow soldiers, including an incident in which a supervisor flashed a light on her while she was washing up in the woods during a training.

On another occasion a supervisor asked Guillén in Spanish to participate in a “threesome.” Guillén informally reported multiple incidents of sexual harassment by a superior in her unit, but leadership failed to take appropriate action.

The Army’s heavily redacted report includes several instances of how other soldiers knew Guillen was being singled out and harassed.

Khawam said her legal team spoke with several friends and family members who told said Guillén was sexually assaulted. No other details have been provided.

Before her disappearance on April 22, 2020, Guillén had told her family she had thoughts of self-harm but she refrained from reporting the assaults for fear of retaliation.

A Texas Department of Public Safety report that was accidentally released and later sealed by a judge, states that Guillén was killed not by anyone who had harassed or assaulted her. In it, it details the motive behind the killing at the hands of Army Specialist Aaron Robinson, who killed himself as police moved in to arrest him.

Robinson’s girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar, who has also been charged with helping to hide Guillen’s body, told authorities that Guillén had seen Aguilar’s photo on Robinson’s phone and he feared Guillén would recognize her as another soldier’s wife.

The DPS report stated that Robinson told Aguilar he was afraid of getting in trouble for violating the Army’s fraternization rules and as a result, attacked Guillén.

Two months after Guillén’s disappearance, her remains were located roughly 20 miles away from Fort Hood in Belton.

Guillén’s death resulted in the passage of the “I am Vanessa Guillen Act” which removed military commanders from sexual assault investigations The measure was part of National Defense Authorization Act.

Last week, a Texas Tribune and ProPublica analysis found that U.S. Army soldiers accused of sexual assault are less than half as likely to be detained ahead of trial than those accused of offenses like drug use and distribution, disobeying an officer or burglary.

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can receive confidential help by calling the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network’s 24/7 toll-free support line at 800-656-4673 or visiting its online hotline.

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